Update: Caught! Murder Suspect Snared on Carnival Celebration

March 5, 2008
Update: We spoke with Jennifer Connors, a Chief Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officer, who told us cruise lines are now required to give the CBP every ship's manifest (the list of all passengers and crewmembers onboard) one hour prior to departure. The CBP then checks the list for people with outstanding warrants and has the authority to arrest wanted persons. Given the short time span, the CBP might not be able to catch a suspicious person before the ship departs, especially if the person is traveling under an assumed name, as we believe happened in this recent case. However, the CBP can work with the ship's captain and officials at various foreign ports to detain an especially dangerous person before the ship returns to the U.S. Connors says that a cruise ship is not a very good way to flee the country because it is a controlled environment and cruise lines are very conscious of who's onboard.

(February 29, 2008) -- We know what you're thinking -- that cruise lines' obsession with interactive passenger-participation programs has reached new heights with onboard murder mystery parties or tournament-level games of Clue. But this time it wasn't Colonel Mustard on the Lido Deck with a poisoned pina colada. It was the real deal.

Savvy sleuth Gene Sloan, USA Today's crack cruise blogger, nabbed the story (not the suspect) this morning. A high-speed chase across Google led him to a report from the U.S. Marshals Service describing a search for a wanted murder suspect.

The fellow, wanted by the Atlanta Police Department, had crossed state lines from Atlanta, Georgia, to Jacksonville, Florida, to board Carnival Celebration.

Whether it was a stylish getaway scheme -- or an effort to seek some relaxation on a Fun Ship after a rough few weeks -- who knows, though another article, this one in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, quotes an inspector for the U.S. Marshals Service as saying that the culprit definitely knew he was an, er, person of interest and so his cruise amounted to an attempt to flee.

The suspect, who according to the statement is Derron Williams, had racked up accusations of felony murder and aggravated assault with a weapon after events that took place on the morning of February 9. The police and the U.S. Marshals Service had tracked Williams from an AirTran flight from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Celebration's home port, to a hotel where his girlfriend was staying. The suspect, USA Today's Sloan reported, then boarded Carnival Celebration.

Atlanta police were hot on his trail though a step behind throughout each phase of Williams' trip. The ship set sail with Williams onboard but the cops got the tip they needed -- whether due to security measures or another source, we don't know. The Coast Guard was able to rendezvous with Celebration five miles outside of Jacksonville (and before the ship entered international water). Williams was arrested in his cabin without incident.

"Shortly after the cruise ship Celebration departed the Port of Jacksonville on Thursday, February 28," says a Carnival Cruise Lines statement, "the ship was contacted by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Department regarding a wanted suspect in an alleged crime who was among the vessel's passengers. The ship's command made arrangements to rendezvous with a U.S. Coast Guard cutter once the vessel reached the end of the channel. The two vessels met at the agreed upon location at which point various law enforcement agency personnel boarded the ship and took the suspect into custody. He was subsequently transferred to the Coast Guard cutter."

So much for a Bahamian cruise vacation for the suspect. But there is still one major question that's gone unanswered: Did Derron Williams really think that a cruise ship would make a decent getaway vehicle? Or do you think he just wanted a little "me" time?

Vote here and tell us what you think.

All joking aside, this episode raises another and definitely more serious question:

Why didn't U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials identify Williams and arrest him prior to the ship's departure? All ships are required to give the CBP the ship's manifest prior to sailing so the agency can screen the passenger list -- the main reason why, in the U.S., you can't book a day-of cruise anymore. What do the authorities do with this list, if not look for criminal suspects and wanted villains and prevent them from boarding? Does this system actually work to keep cruise passengers safe, or is it another case of official-seeming procedures taking the place of real security measures?

We'd like to hear your opinions on this important security issue. We'll be taking a closer look at the topic next week so stay tuned.

Editor's note: We recently learned from Carnival that Williams did book his cruise prior to the alleged assault. However, it's still not clear if he intended his cruise to be a vacation...or a conveniently pre-planned way to flee the country.

--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor